A matter of opinion: get connected

Categories: Reflections and opinions

Minette Batters, president of the National Farmers Union, on the need to reconnect farmers with consumers—and why markets are an excellent platform to do so

As a nation, we’ve probably never had access to a safer supply of high quality food. And yet never before have we been so disconnected from it. That needs to change.

Firstly, I feel we take food for granted: every year, we throw away 16 billion pounds’ worth of food, and that cannot possibly go on. As a beef farmer, I am also frustrated at the lack of understanding of the agricultural sector’s important role in maintaining the environment. In large parts of the UK, the land has been supporting farming for centuries and isn’t much good for anything else. My cattle—those natural lawnmowers—are a crucial part of the local landscape.

There’s also a general lack of awareness of the versatility and nutritional value of beef. I’m involved in some really positive campaigns to get those messages across, but it’s something we all need to work on.

Higher welfare meat
Animal welfare is becoming increasingly important to consumers—and quite rightly so—but often people aren’t willing to pay for it. Again, I think that is a result of disconnection. We need to help people understand exactly what it is they’re buying and, in turn, why higher welfare meat costs the amount it does. The same is true of other high-quality British produce.

There are, it’s important to recognise, a lot of people out there who are really struggling to make ends meet—but actually, by buying high quality raw ingredients, even if those ingredients come at a slightly higher cost, you can eat both well and cheaply, relative to buying processed and pre-packaged goods. And, ultimately, it’s going to be better for you.

I feel very strongly that education is the key to bridging these gaps in knowledge and improving people’s appreciation of food. If we truly understand and value what we eat, we’re less likely to waste it and more inclined to pay the true price of its production. Food production should, I believe, be formalised as part of the national curriculum.

Educating customers
But there are ways that individual farmers can inform customers, too: by getting out and about, or opening our farm doors to the public, and saying, “This is what we do, this is how we do it, and this is why we do it.” Markets such as Borough are an excellent example of a platform that allows farmers to do just that, and they can play a really important role in helping us to educate consumers. When a farmer sells directly to their customers, they have a fantastic opportunity to share their story. More still, it allows producers to have true end-to-end control of supply, which creates genuine transparency.

The reality is that the UK has some of the highest standards of animal welfare, food safety and environmental protection of any country in the world, and we want people to know about that. Recreating those lost connections with our food, building links between farmers and consumers, improving people’s understanding of the importance of the agricultural sector and the cost of food in every sense: all of that will in turn help us to ensure we maintain those high standards—and improve on them.